US Holocaust Legislation German National Railway Fears Flood of Lawsuits

Germany's national railway, Deutsche Bahn, has hired a law firm and PR agency in the United States to prepare for legislation being considered by Congress that would allow Holocaust survivors to sue European railway companies for damages in American courts. Deutsche Bahn fears victims could sue for millions if the legislation passes.
The railway track at the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

The railway track at the main gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

Foto: © Reinhard Krause / Reuters

Officials at Germany's Deutsche Bahn national railway appear to be concerned about the possibility of lawsuits demanding millions in damages from Holocaust survivors in United States courts. SPIEGEL has learned that the national railway hired a New York law firm and a public relations agency at the end of 2011 to observe legislation being considered in Congress that would provide the basis for possible lawsuits.

The PR agency, which specializes in crisis management, is also supposed to promote Deutsche Bahn's viewpoint by lobbying in Washington. When contacted by SPIEGEL, a Deutsche Bahn spokesperson confirmed that a company's services had been retained but would not comment on further details. On Sunday, the firm also confirmed it had hired the services of the New York law firm to observe and analyze the legislation.

The proposed Holocaust Rail Justice Act would allow survivors who were transported by the French national railway, SNCF, to Nazi death camps during the German occupation of France to sue in American courts. The bill's sponsor, Senator Charles Schumer, says that more than 76,000 Jews, resistance fighters and a small number of US prisoners of war were deported to the camps on SNCF trains. Only 3 percent survived.

Would Law Cover Deutsche Bahn?

In the past, lawsuits against SNCF have failed in the United States because of the hazy legal situation. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) made it extremely difficult to sue other countries or their government-owned entities in US courts, but the new Holocaust Rail Justice Act would make such suits possible. It would also allow non-US citizens who survived the Holocaust to sue European railway companies in American courts.

For its part, Deutsche Bahn itself has also been confronted with claims for damages from Holocaust survivors on several occasions. Most recently, a group of Eastern European victims of the Nazis announced last year that they would file suit against Deutsche Bahn in a US court. The case, however, has not yet been submitted.

Although the Holocaust Rail Justice Act specifically mentions SNCF by name, its language is also broad enough that it could include Deutsche Bahn, which was known as the Deutsche Reichsbahn during the Nazi era, and other European national railways that were complicit in the National Socialists' crimes against humanity. However, some experts have argued that the German Foundation Agreement, which the US and Germany signed in 2000, resolves all claims involving German entities.

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